Bernard Jenkin is Chair of PACAC (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee) and Member of Parliament for Harwich and North Essex. He writes in a personal capacity.
The controversy about politicians’ behaviour creates the same kind of fear which seized the whole political system when the failures of the MPs’ expenses system was exposed. Once again, there are allegations and accusations being made, in an atmosphere in which it is hard for those accused to defend themselves. This is not least because many feel that there is no means for the genuine grievances about MPs’ behaviour to be properly resolved, and there have been too many blind eyes turned towards what some people know has been going on.
This continuing confusion cries out for clearer values and principles, and a proper discussion about how MPs should apply them, not just more rules. This is not to seek to avoid punishment according to rules, when that is deserved, but it is striking: there is little discussion, in public or in private, about the core values and principles by which MPs are expected to live and work.
This is one of the reasons why PACAC (the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee) made a submission to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ (PCS) Review of the House of Commons Code of Conduct. Our paper can be found at this link on page 37 (not page 35 as it says in the index) of the written evidence received by the PCS, Katherine Hudson). She has yet to make her report and recommendations to the House of Commons Committee on Standards, and I make no suggestion that there should be any interference in that process. However, PACAC recommends substantial reform of the Code of Conduct and the machinery around it.
The PACAC submission is not lengthy, and speaks for itself. In the midst of the present controversy, there is an opportunity to promote a more positive conversation about how we can promote better attitudes and behaviour amongst MPs and all our staffs. This would be about promoting better support and understanding of people who serve in the glare of public life. This cannot just be about creating more rules and more mechanisms for punishing people in public life when things go wrong.
Like the expenses failure in 2009, this new controversy is about a failure of governance. And this stems from a failure by Parliament to establish means by which it can be more mindful of itself as an institution. As last time, there is a cry for tougher, more comprehensive rules, and sanctions against those who break them. But good governance is about so much more than mere compliance with rules. And the public will conclude: the tougher the rules, then the less trustworthy politicians must be. That is not going to improve public trust in our political system. Moreover, in this matter, which is about how MPs conduct themselves in their personal and working relationships, there are deep questions about whether there should be hard and fast rules about some aspects of private behaviour, which most people today regard as private and personal matters.
Governance of Parliament is difficult, not least because Parliament is sovereign, and MPs can only function if they have powers, privileges and immunities which cannot be constrained, or we would be unable fulfil our constitutional function. But that cannot absolve anyone for bad attitudes or bad behaviour. On the contrary, like leaders must, in any walk of life, we have to lead by example, and when our example falls short, it is harder for us – or impossible – to lead.
This underlines why governance and reputation are intrinsically linked. We have rules on things like financial disclosure and lobbying, but there are slender means for discussion, coaching and mentoring MPs about the particular dangers and pressures of public life, and how to reconcile the reality of our lives with the values and principles we want to uphold. It is a fact that those who are driven by the best of motives of public service, are also under the most intense pressure of events and of public scrutiny. Politics is a testing profession and it is not surprising that politicians’ lives can fracture, with excruciating consequences for everyone involved.
Now is an opportunity for a more positive debate around the whole question of the governance of politics, and how politicians behave: a mature conversation about the positive values we want to promote amongst each other, about the principles that public leaders are expected to observe, and how we should promote the right values amongst those in public service. The MPs’ Code of Conduct intones the Seven Principles of Public Life. It declares, “Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally”, but until we discuss more openly what we intend to mean by all that, then the confusion will continue, and trust in Parliament will continue to be the casualty.